Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
The first sign was not good, not good at all. But KirVonte Benson didn't let that fumble on his first carry stop him last Saturday and the Pitt Panthers didn't have much luck slowing Georgia Tech's hammer, either, as he rolled to a record.
In rushing for 196 yards, the most ever by a B-back in Paul Johnson's 10 years as head coach on The Flats, Benson and his buddies battered Pitt to the tune of 436 rushing yards at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Georgia Tech defeated Pitt, 35-17, in the ACC opener for both teams.
That didn't qualify as a shocker: the Yellow Jackets (2-1) are leading the nation in rushing with an average of 393.7 yards per game on the ground. If there was a surprise, perhaps it was that Johnson didn't seem as upset as one might expect after the redshirt freshman lost the ball on third-and-three at Tech's 33-yard line.
"Coach Johnson just told me to hold the ball . . . " Benson recalled. "It's unfortunate on the fumbles. He said [to not] let it get to me too much."
Apparently, it didn't.
Benson carried 29 times against the Panthers (1-3) and even though he lost another fumble later, and fellow B-backs Jerry Howard and Quaide Weimerskirch each lost a fumble as well, the Jackets were scarcely threatened.
That doesn't mean Johnson emerged completely happy.
That fumbling business just won't fly and as the Jackets prepare to play on North Carolina Saturday at Bobby Dodd, ball security has become all the more prominent a focus in practice.
"We work on it all the time. You've got to be focused enough to care enough not to do it," the Jackets' head coach said. "He didn't go out there and fumble on purpose, but you have to learn to push through some times when you get tired. You can't get sloppy with your fundamentals, you have to continue to push through.
"And we need to help him. We probably don't need him to play so much . . . that's probably a lot for him. Once Jerry went in and fumbled, we didn't put him back in . . .
Howard was helpful before he subbed out for good, rushing three times for 19 yards, and Weimerskirch added four carries for 31 yards and a touchdown.
Benson's first fumble looked ominous. Pitt already led 7-0 and, suddenly, the Panthers had the ball at Tech's 33-yard-line. The Jackets held, however, and Pitt missed a 50-yard field goal try.
Then, Benson went right back to work.
He had carries of 11, four, five and six yards on Tech's next possession, setting up a 32-yard touchdown run by quarterback TaQuon Marshall.
"[On] the next drive [after his first fumble], the big run I had, it got a load off me," Benson said. "It felt real good coming off the fumble."
When they weren't fumbling -- Marshall also fumbled, but recovered -- the Jackets felt good running the ball. They ran it 67 times, averaging 6.5 yards per carry, including 6.3 yards on 31 first-down rushes.
"We were getting pretty good push out of the center and the guards," Johnson said. "We were kind of combo-ing and double teaming . . . KirVonte ran the ball really hard and so did those [other] guys . . . "
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi agreed; the Panthers' heads were practically spinning.
"It's a little bit of everything, guys missing tackles, then you give up on a G-option and the quarterback scrambles for a touchdown, and everybody starts thinking out there (gestures with arms outward)," Narduzzi said after the game. "They're good at it. They know what they're doing in there.
"Their guards would come down inside and then wheel our D-tackles out."
Cooper and the offensive linemen had fun seeing the rewards of their hard work in the trenches.
"We had a bunch of long drives," he said simply. "We just work to try to get the push for [Benson] and let him get in the open field. It's good to have a B-back back there working hard."
Marshall did his share of work, too, and while he wasn't happy with his passing (4-of-7 for 48 yards), and he was annoyed by the fumbles, after rushing 18 times for 112 yards and two touchdowns, the quarterback sees great potential in Tech's offense -- if the Jackets can hang onto the ball.
"We have confidence in the offense. In our minds, we're like `Let's put up at least 300 yards of [rushing offense] today,'" Marshall said. "You start balling out . . . and everything starts rolling . . .
"Those guys were giving a good push [he said of all blockers]. There were a couple that I should have broken. They had great blocks on the second level. Other than that, the guys that were tackling me were third-level guys, safeties."
Benson's looking for more of the same against the Tar Heels. The runs, that is, and not the fumbles.
"I'm just glad I could perform when I had the ball in my hands. From week-to-week, we practice like we're going to be a tough run offense . . . we expect to put up at least 300 rushing yards every game.
"I believe we played well. We played real fast coming out. The fumbles are unfortunate, but I think the overall intensity and effort and speed we played with throughout the whole game, we can do that from week-to-week."